At age 14, Moroccan-born Simon Elmaleh already had a job, and it was no paper route—he was already earning his chops in the kitchen of a Mediterranean restaurant. Just two years later, he launched his 17-year career as an assistant chef on a five-star passenger cruise liner, and in 1986, he opened the first Moroccan restaurant in Japan. In 2001, he brought his decades-long passion for Mediterranean cuisine to California, where he founded Simon's Restaurant.
A Los Angeles Times writer praised the "warm atmosphere," which is decked out in rich cream-colored tones and vintage French cabaret posters. At cloth-draped tables, guests feast on traditional Moroccan tagines, spicy homemade lamb sausages, and baba ghanouj, described as "vivid—roasty and pure, whipped into a fluffy cloud of eggplant."
Chef "Ben" Benameur has cooked for a variety of palates, including Hollywood celebrities. But his culinary career began a bit more humbly—first learning to cook alongside his mother while growing up in Morocco. Chef Benameur eventually immigrated to Los Angeles and brought along his mother’s recipes and his own distinctive culinary style. He passionately embraces the flavors and techniques of Moroccan cooking while adding his own modern interpretations whenever possible. At one particular catered meal, his sophisticated iteration of homespun cooking caught the attention of award-winning actor Ryan Gosling. The rising-star, who was 24 at the time, reached out to the chef and eventually agreed to co-found a restaurant—Tagine—alongside Chef Benameur and sommelier Chris Angulo, according to Lifestyler magazeine. Above all else, the Zagat-rated eatery remains committed to the cozy warmth of Moroccan home cooking, even as the chefs demonstrate their gourmet talents and inclination for upscale touches. In its 2006 review, the Los Angeles Times noted that, "at Tagine, Chef Benameur subtly varies his spicing from dish to dish and skillfully weaves flavors through the set meal with a light, sure hand." He continues to rely on his mother's hummus recipe and lamb entrees marinate is an many as seven different Moroccan spices. However, Chef Benameur also looks to the flavors of his new home by finishing dishes with vegetables straight from the day's farmers markets. With its dark-olive walls and earth-toned banquettes, Tagine's intimately sized dining room also puts diners at ease with a warm, inviting ambiance. Gentle jazz plays over the speakers. Exposed Edison bulbs dangle from the ceiling and gently light the space. Handmade mirrors dominate one wall opposite a collection of framed black-and-white photographs. To help readers picture the setting, the Los Angeles Times review gives one piece of advice: "think Rick's place from 'Casablanca' updated for the 21st century."
Babouch Moroccan Restaurant cradles patrons in the invigorating spirit of Morocco as vibrant tapestries and ornate ceiling canopies surround a menu of traditional North African dishes. Between the fluted edges of golden tables, skewered preparations of beef and seafood descend alongside zesty accents of couscous, honey, and prunes as eggplant and lentils adorn a range of meat-free dishes. A colorful selection of craft cocktails and international wines merges with succulent frappe blends to balance the exotic flavors. Each night, performances by male and female belly dancers suffuse the space with eye-catching movement and jingling sound, whereas tarot readings lend guests a glimpse of the future without the meticulous hemming required of ripping a hole in the space-time continuum.
Dips made from fire-roasted eggplant or bell peppers, known respectively as zaolook and shakshooka, top pieces of pita bread and slices of house-baked flatbread at ASHA Moroccan Mediterranean Kitchen. Many of the traditional recipes used in the kitchen come from owner Hend Elarabi's own mother, according to the OC Weekly blog, and treat taste buds to flavor combinations that will be new to many diners. Slow-cooked lentils join fresh tomatoes, cilantro, and Moroccan herbs in the adeesa, Hend's favorite appetizer, and dried plums lend their sweetness to bits of roasted lamb in pots of lamb tajeen. To add to the traditional ambiance set by the restaurant's cuisine, belly dancers provide entertainment, offer shimmy lessons, and translate stomach growls into English throughout the week.
Chef Nicolas T. Peter is something of a magician. Though he acquires ingredients from local farmers' markets, his seasonal menus produce meals that feel like they were plucked off tables at a Mediterranean bistro. The farm-to-fork philosophy means the selection is ephemeral, but previous menus have included dishes such as mustard-grilled rack of lamb with madeira wine, and oxtail tagine with baby turnips, chickpeas, and tomatoes. Seasonality extends to a rotating selection of cocktails, and the diverse wine list includes varietals from Israel, Slovenia, South Africa, and Mars. The fresh, colorful food fits right in with the Little Door’s bucolic dining spaces. On the Patio, a tiled fountain bubbles into a koi pond, and the scent of bougainvillea floats into the sun-drenched open air. A bamboo ceiling offers shelter in the Winter Garden, where cerulean chairs and lush greenery add color to an otherwise whitewashed room. Inside, a pianist sets the mood in the smaller Piano Room, which absorbs light from the adjacent Patio, while beautiful stained-glass windows and exposed beams give the Blue Room a more rustic vibe and a reason to not be so sad.